02 Stas NaminStas Namin – Centuria S-Quark Symphony
London Symphony Orchestra; Lee Reynolds
Navona Records nv6200 (navonarecords.com) 

In his liner notes, Stas Namin refers to “clashes between individuals, societies, countries, ethnic groups – and ultimately the crash of civilization… the concept of my symphony came to me… as a kind of prophecy… reflecting the discord present in each person and consequently in each society.”

Namin (b. Anastas Mikoyan, 1951) is a Russian arts icon, a superstar rock band leader, songwriter, film and theatre producer-director, photographer, painter (including the CD’s cover image) and classical composer.

Despite Namin’s comments, there’s hardly any conflict or dissonance in his 47-minute, one-movement Symphony (2016). Instead, I counted more than a dozen brief episodes expressing ever-changing moods including nostalgia, playfulness, celebration, uncertainty and brash assertiveness, each colourfully scored, highlighting different instrumental combinations. One episode suggested to me a rustic square dance, another a comical circus procession. In fact, the entire symphony, highly theatrical and rhythmically energized, is essentially a brilliant ballet score begging to be choreographed, with episodes appropriate for solos, duos and ensembles.

Rather than illustrating current or futuristic discord, Namin’s engaging melodic mix of late-Romanticism and neo-classicism recalls music of the 1920s and 30s. Namin never sounds like anyone else, though – not until the final three minutes, the first truly dissonant section, a crescendo of pounding percussion reminiscent of Mosolov’s Iron Foundry and the finale of Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps. The apocalyptic climax is followed by a plaintive solo violin, described by Namin as “a new thread of life.”

Highly enjoyable throughout!

04 Kuniko ReichSteve Reich – Drumming
Kuniko
Linn Records KD 582 (linnrecords.com) 

The celebrated mallet percussionist Kuniko is equally comfortable in sound worlds as diverse as Baroque, electronic and minimalist. Having performed Bach with as much ease as Xenakis she approached 2018 with a startling interpretation of Steve Reich’s Drumming, a work inspired by Ghanaian Ewe drummers. While Kuniko might have taken her mallets to vibraphone and marimba in the course of other musical challenges, this recording comes with particularly vexing challenges: how to overcome challenges of tone (relating to the metallic sound of the glockenspiels) and the fact that she overdubs the parts of up to nine percussionists that Reich had in mind?

The obvious answer was to use her hyper-virtuosity on anything that can be struck with a mallet. And thus we are treated to music that develops from the stuttering first notes to a veritable cascade of melodic sounds redolent of a kind of tintinnabulation that virtually transforms a typically Afro-centric drumming into an extraordinary world of melodicism. Reich’s composition, Drumming, is divided into four (unequal) Parts and Kuniko embellishes each with her percussive arsenal that also includes marimba, glockenspiels, piccolo and voices.

The result transforms what minimalist refuseniks might toss aside here as repetitive into a piece that Kuniko builds as if into a moving soundscape of broodingly percussive tumbling grooves that begin to ripple and glitter as she adds cascades of notes from the marimbas and piccolo, topped up by high-sprung pristine vocals towards the work’s conclusion.

05 BaobabPhill Niblock: Baobab
Quatuor Bozzini
QB CQB 1924 (actuellecd.com)

Montreal-based Quatuor Bozzini has released 28 CDs of contemporary music since their founding in 1999, covering disparate international composers from Aldo Clementi to John Cage along with a host of Canadians, and in the process becoming a preeminent string quartet in contemporary music circles. This recording of two works by American minimalist Phill Niblock testifies to their willingness to take on challenges to find new musical ground.

They play two similar pieces here, each recast from earlier orchestral versions, Disseminate (1998) and Baobab (2011). Niblock has reconceived them as works for five string quartets, the founding Bozzinis (cellist Isabelle and violist Stéphanie) along with violinists Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung overdubbing themselves to 20 instruments. They’re precisely notated, microtonal works, with long, even bow strokes themselves influencing the exact pitch. The result in each piece is a hive of sound, bow strokes determinedly disappearing until the massed quartets approach the constancy of a bank of oscillators.

It’s an orchestra constructed in the recording process, creating works that are literally our experience of them. Each piece is both constantly changing and never changing; each achieves timelessness in a remarkably brief time, 22:18 for Disseminate, 23:11 for Baobab. Here our experience of pitch confounds notions of unison and dissonance, as if the pieces are constantly between them, simultaneously moving towards and away. It’s like listening to long and failed orchestral tune-ups that are also a new kind of bliss, experiences to cherish.

06 Tim BradyTim Brady – Music for Large Ensemble
Bradyworks Large Ensemble; Tim Brady
Starkland ST-230 (starkland.com) 

With strident chords and single note triplets and arpeggios, Tim Brady’s guitar becomes a razor-edged ignition into the elegant rolling atmospherics of reeds, woodwinds, strings and rhythm section of his Bradyworks Large Ensemble. Somehow the loud and amplified intrusion is smoothed over and the respective instruments are no longer strange bedfellows, even as the music veers from the utterly thrilling turbulence of ideas – a glittering introduction, dark passagework, triumphant fanfares by guitar, piano and electric piano, all of whom trade gigantic-sounding chords in the dark and foreboding Désir, the first part of the Concerto for electric guitar and large chamber ensemble.

Darkness and foreboding are familiar tone colours and atmospheric soundscapes throughout Eight Songs about: Symphony #7, re-inking the palimpsests of Shostakovich’s work with all the glory and tension of the turbulent Soviet era, complete with principal players in the form of music sketched in the proverbial image and likeness of Josef Stalin (Bells), Shostakovich and his wife Nina Varzar (Exhaustion) the conductor Karl Eliasberg (August Ninth) and a number of incidental characters in the erstwhile Soviet landscape.

In his works Brady recasts intensely Sovietized themes of tension, fearfulness and bitterness, tempering these with the sound of soaring hope via heraldic, ascending motifs and bright harmonics. The result is a work of brilliant impetuosity. Played on the knife edge of the guitar, Brady combines a disturbing history with Douglas Smith’s poignant text through recitation and arias and instrumentation to great effect.

07 Palardy RogerCannibale
Danielle Palardy Roger
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 241CD (actuellecd.com)

Few compositions can more fully embody the enduring spirit of Québécois musique actuelle – playful, anarchic, witty, frequently barbed – than composer/percussionist Danielle Palardy Roger’s Cannibale. The 11-movement work calls on a special kind of musician: here the performers sing as well as play, improvise as well as interpret; four even compose individual movements. Palardy Roger’s frequent musical partner Joane Hétu, also a distinguished composer, provides focused dramatic narration as well as voice and alto saxophone.

The work’s special character is apparent from the beginning as Hétu intones “cannibale” repeatedly, a prayer, an invocation, a lover’s whisper. Each position is explored in depth as the work unfolds, Palardy Roger’s sustained text and frame highlighting special episodes. Le sacrifice rituel, composed by percussionist Isaiah Ceccarelli, suggests the symbolic cannibalism of the mass with isolated percussion and Gregorian chant. Electric guitarist André Duchesne contributes the rocking La victoire du guerrier, while Alexandre St-Onge’s electronics drive his Sauvage, le côté party de la nécrophilie cannibale. Electronic musician Michel F Côté contributes Le gourmand épicurien, Palardy Roger’s ecstatic text animated by the voice, chewing sounds and clarinet of Elizabeth Lima, who elsewhere sounds the elegiac depths of Pitié Navire. At times, the brutalist roar of Ida Toninato’s baritone saxophone may represent the title character.

Cannibale is a rich allegory in which genres from hard rock to free jazz to synth-pop and “traditional” electronic music are cannibalized with the same glee that the texts explore the modes of “Cannibale capitale brutal.”

08 Glacier MusicGlacier Music – Ecoacoustics of Matthew Burtner
Matthew Burtner
Ravello Records rr8001 (ravellorecords.com) 

Matthew Burtner is a multiple award-winning Alaskan-born composer, augmented computer instrument designer, and ecoacoustician, currently professor of composition and computer music at the University of Virginia. In his thought-provoking album Glacier Music, Burtner presents five compositions based on field recordings he made on various Alaskan glaciers, or which include the sounds of snow (the raw material of glaciers). These recordings are further transformed and edited by the composer in various novel ways.

Employing a musical ecoacoustics approach, he embeds environmental systems into musical and performative structures using new technologies. Burtner draws on techniques of sonification, acoustic ecology and soundscape composition pioneered by Canadian composers R. Murray Schafer, Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp, et al.

Three of the works here – Sound Cast of Matanuska Glacier, Sonic Physiography of a Time-stretched Glacier, and Syntax of Snow also feature scores for standard orchestral instruments of the Rivanna Quartet, Albemarle Ensemble and percussionists Brandon Bell and Trevor Saint, providing timbral, harmonic and textural counterpoint to the field recordings and synthesized sounds. We’re reminded by the composer that at the threshold of mountain and ocean, glaciers “are highly susceptible to global warming … [providing] an indicator of the health of the region in a time of rapid climate change.”

Burtner’s music on this album sites the environment at its core, aiming to decentralize standard human musical notions. It seems to be searching for more universal ecology-centered experiences, inspiring us to reflect on nature’s beauty in sound, and perhaps also to take action to protect it.

09 Patricia LazzaraRadiance – A celebration of spiritual transformation and new creation
Patricia Lazzara, flute
Independent (patricialazzaraflutist.com) 

This, the ninth studio album by the distinguished American flutist, Patricia Lazzara, presents a fascinating program of contemporary compositions and arrangements for the flute by a collection of living American, Canadian, European and Japanese composers. The two Canadians are Toronto flutist and composer, Ron Korb, no stranger to these pages, and Uzbek-Canadian, now living in Toronto, Dmitriy Varelas.

The first two tracks are works by Korb, Woodland Serenade and A Muse. The latter, unlike any other of Korb’s compositions that I have heard, is unaccompanied and offers both technically challenging passages and sections using extended technique which blend perfectly with the more conventional writing. Track three, Reflections of Radiance, by Varelas, for flute and alto flute played by Steve Markoff and cello played by Gerall Heiser is a beautiful and accomplished work, a really great addition to the flute ensemble repertoire. Track eight, Domingo Semenzato’s Divagando (choro) with guitarist, Darren O’Neill is played with just the right blend of vitality and sadness to lift the notes off the page, so to speak.

A real surprise for me, and at first glance an incongruous part of a primarily contemporary program, is the Sicilienne by the Austrian composer and contemporary of Mozart, Maria Theresia von Paradis. This enchanting melody has a strangely contemporary feel to it though, and is actually a good fit. Many thanks to Patricia Lazzara for introducing us to some fine new repertoire by mostly not-well-known contemporary composers.

10 LaunchLaunch
Admiral Launch Duo
Albany Records TROY1752 (albanyrecords.com) 

Launch may be described as a way to introduce something new, which is precisely what the US-based Admiral Launch Duo is achieving with their uncanny/intriguing instrumentation. Since their 2013 Fresh Inc Festival debut, saxophonist Jonathan Hulting-Cohen and harpist Jennifer R. Ellis have spent years working together. Their debut 10-composition release features wide-ranging stylistic commissions, transcriptions and premiere recordings.

Five Admiral commissions are included. Patrick O’Malley’s three-movement Thaumaturgy is a current day exploration of harp and sax effects. Amazing how the performers can match colours on two such diverse instruments in an arpeggiated ripple section, while the loud programmatic final meteor movement stuns with harp glissandos and high pitch sax notes. More wailing sax extreme high dramatics with mournful contrasts appear in Christine Delphine Hedden’s Amhrán na Cásca, while dark low and high tones emulate emotional distress in Angélica Negrón’s Still Here. Close atonal interchanges and tight playing are heard on Jasper Sussman’s …nice box! “Oh So Square” and Natalie Moller’s nature-inspired starshine & moonfall.

The other works include changes of sonic pace. Highlights include traditional Romantic harmonies and melodies in the duo’s arrangement of Marcel Tournier’s La Lettre du Jardinier, and a contemplative lyrical harp part against sensitive saxophone phrasing and surprising flute-like tone fluttering on composer Ida Gotkovsky’s own arrangement of her Eolienne.

Musical common sense assumes that it just won’t work but like anything different, the Admiral Launch Duo’s talent, balance and sonic experimentation blossoms with repeated listening.

11 CrosswindCrosswind
Tower Duo
Ravello Records rr8003 (ravellorecords.com)

Based in Columbus, Ohio the flute and saxophone Tower Duo specializes in performing contemporary works by emerging composers. Flutist Erin Helgeson Torres performs regularly in various Ohio orchestras, while saxophonist and composer Michael Rene Torres serves as the artistic director of the Columbus Ohio Discovery Ensemble (dedicated to the promotion and performance of contemporary concert music in Central Ohio). Both are active teaching their respective instruments at area universities.

Performing new repertoire for their unusual wind instrument pairing (since 2007), Crosswind is Tower Duo’s debut album. It features eight of the duo’s favourite compositions by as many American and international composers. The album displays the duo’s mission: commissioning and performing new scores. Included is Scott Brickman’s epigrammatic Epic Suite (2012), Charlie Wilmoth’s disruptive Three Pieces (2013), Philip Sink’s Places Never Painted (2012), inspired by the composer’s poem evoking the quiet beauty of the natural world, as well as Michael Rene Torres’ four-part character study Four Short Episodes (2011).

The title track from 2013 by Hong Kong composer Chin Ting Chan (b.1986), written for the duo, is an album highlight. Full of extended techniques and reflecting Chan’s harmonically exact, rhythmically defined and structurally strict M.O., it pays close attention to instrumental timbre and colour, and two-voice polyphony. It’s also infused with a playfully dramatic, tonally exploratory mood.

This lightness of mood and unstrained virtuosity happily permeate this album, enjoyable to listeners far from the borders of the Buckeye State.

01 Laura HubertOne Night in Kensington
Laura Hubert
Independent (laurahubert.com)

Toronto singer Laura Hubert would be familiar to many readers as the energetic vocalist of the popular JUNO Award-winning Canadian folk/rock band the Leslie Spit Treeo (1988-2000). Hubert continues her musical journey singing jazz in this live recording from the Poetry Jazz Café in Toronto’s Kensington Market, supported by a superb jazz quartet comprised of pianist Peter Hill, guitarist Eric St-Laurent, bassist Steve Wallace and Davide DiRenzo on drums.

Hubert performs with an astounding, memorable sound. Her clear articulations of the storytelling lyrics are still present as she develops her expanding, still intense singing style in 13 contrasting cover tracks. The opening Mercer/Carmichael tune Lazy Bones is a great introduction to Hubert’s personal and at times idiosyncratic sound style, complete with swells, warble and growling vocal effects, and never over-the-top loud singing. A vocals/piano start leads to a full band rendition, with upbeat instrumental solos and background cymbal crashes nicely contrasting the vocal effects. The slower Ellington/Russell song I Didn’t Know About You has Hubert singing in a tenderly lush way, with dramatic held notes against standard jazz band backdrop sounds. The upbeat quasi cha-cha-cha tune Comes Love (Stept/Tobias/Brown) is another intense, unique rendition driven by a tight rhythmic groove.

Great musical interplay between Hubert and her band, extended colourful and exciting instrumental solos and clear production values, including the appreciative audience applause, complete this excellent live release from this musically evolving artist.

02 Simone MorrisSettling Up
Simone Morris
Independent (simonemorris.ca)

Toronto jazz vocalist Simone Morris’ debut album Settling Up is an absolute treat to the listener, a pop of delicious and sultry goodness in an otherwise dull and dreary day. The album was born out of a longtime collaboration with guitarist Mike Freedman, who is featured as a co-writer on each track along with Morris. Freedman’s mellow and fittingly soulful electric guitar licks, in combination with acclaimed pianist Adrean Farrugia’s delightful keyboard and piano riffs, add just the right amount of spirit to complement Morris’ soulful vocals.

Morris has described the album as “weaving a musical path that conveys diverse musical experience and background.” It is easy to fall into a pleasant lull and meander along this path with each piece offering a new stylistic experience that perfectly showcases her unique timbre and exceptionally varied musical background. From tracks such as Baby This Works and Man in the Corner, which delve into traditional jazz, to Don’t Come Crying To Me, an excellent, soft bossa nova, Morris’ artistic talents are made very apparent. With a very unique timbre, slightly Krall-esque but with an intriguing touch of spunk, she has succeeded in creating a captivating modern yet timeless quality within her music.

Not only do we receive an absolutely lovely and charming musical experience from this record, we are also able to catch a rare and intimate glimpse into Morris’ life experiences. Settling Up will delight jazz aficionados and newcomers alike.

Listen to 'Settling Up' Now in the Listening Room

03 John McMurchyVolume 2
John MacMurchy’s Art of Breath
Flatcar FCR-007 (johnmacmurchy.com)

The brainchild of woodwind player John MacMurchy, Art of Breath is a collective of jazz musicians playing across genres and musical borders. Perhaps heartchild is a better term, because it’s apparent that a lot of feeling went into these songs, all but one composed and arranged by MacMurchy.

The album opens gently and beautifully with Calliope, which features singers Jocelyn Barth and Jessica Lalonde in harmony throughout and a lulling solo by Dan Ionescu on nylon-string guitar. We’re moved into breezy Brazilian territory on Meu Coracao Canta which features band member and Brazilophile, Alan Hetherington and Rio de Janeiro-native, Maninho Costa, on percussion. Listen for the clever interplay of cuíca and voice near the end of the track.

We get jolted out of our daydream by the next few tracks which tackle tougher topics, like American politics, and the music gets more strident but no less superb. Bruce Cassidy’s masterful work on EVI – an electronic valve instrument, (an offshoot of the EWI) that came to prominence in the 70s and that’s quite a rarity these days – lends an urgent and interesting layer to Voice of America and the driving jazz number, WTF. Drummer Daniel Barnes, bassist Ross McIntyre and pianist Stacie McGregor keep it swinging on Slippery When Wet.

Both singers have gorgeous solo turns – Jocelyn Barth is exquisite and not overly sentimental on the Bobby Troup heartbreaker, February Brings the Rain, while Jessica Lalonde nails the vocally challenging Autumn Brown and Blue to close out the album.

Listen to 'Volume 2' Now in the Listening Room

04 IcterusIcterus
Stefan Hegerat
Independent (stefanhegerat.com)

The debut album from drummer/bandleader Stefan Hegerat, Icterus, was inspired in part by a trip to Germany, from which his mother’s family emigrated following World War I. The resulting collection of songs – all of which were composed and arranged by Hegerat – are connected by shared themes of “existentialism and belonging.” Joining Hegerat is Robert Grieve on electric guitar, Patrick O’Reilly, also on electric guitar and Mark Godfrey on electric bass.

Icterus, as the instrumentation may suggest, takes considerable influence from amplified electric music, and, though it is replete with improvisation, the prevailing stylistic tone is more rock than jazz. Schloss, the opening track, begins with a tightly executed staccato melody, played by both guitars and bass before the time dissolves into a section of group improvisation that showcases Grieve and O’Reilly’s complementary instrumental voices. Odd One Out, which showcases the group’s ability to explore wide dynamic ranges, begins with an ethereal guitar melody that grows patiently as it’s joined by the second guitar; when the rhythm section enters, the contrast between the rock-solid bass/drum parts and the spacey guitar parts neatly encapsulates the charm of Icterus. Raccoons, another highlight, builds slowly, eventually settling into one of the album’s most compelling sections, both for its deep groove and for the beautifully contrasting guitar tones used by Grieve and O’Reilly.

A worthwhile listen for fans of jazz, progressive rock and improvised music, Icterus is a mature and self-assured debut from a talented drummer with a clear compositional vision.

05 Jim Brenan50/50
Jim Brenan 11
Death Defying Records n/a (deathdefyingrecords.com) 

Saxophonist Jim Brenan has been a major force on the jazz scene for a number of years, performing in Canada and around the world both as a sideperson and with his own projects. 50/50, his most recent album, was released in February through the Canadian label Death Defying Records, and features pianist/keyboardist Chris Andrew, who joins Brenan and nine of Alberta’s top jazz musicians to form an 11-piece ensemble. The instrumentation – rhythm section and horns – works in Brenan’s favour, as it allows him to showcase his considerable writing and arranging skills, as well as his prowess as a soloist. While the band’s composition might bring to mind the swinging music of similarly sized Canadian ensembles, the overall vibe is driving, funky and distinctly electric, with touches of Michael Brecker’s large ensemble writing and late Miles Davis fused with Brenan’s unique artistic vision.

50/50 starts with Tigers Milk, a multifaceted song that begins with Brenan trading beautiful, melodic playing with the horn section’s lush chords; after a patient first half, the song segues into a pulsating, 16th-note-heavy second section, with excellent solos from both Brenan and Andrew. Fant-O-Max is one of 50/50’s funkiest and most exploratory songs, with tight horn melodies deftly played over the deep groove set up by drummer Jamie Cooper and bassist Rubim De Toledo, with a fiery soprano solo and a searching keyboard performance from Andrew. Ozark Mountain Cougar Fightin’ serves as an apt final track: at once virtuosic, funky and humorous, it neatly encapsulates Brenan’s project in 50/50.

06 Snowghost SessionsThe Snowghost Sessions
Wayne Horvitz; Geoff Harper; Eric Eagle
Songlines SGL1627-2 (songlines.com) 

Pianist/composer/producer Wayne Horvitz has been a prominent leader of the American avant-garde since his emergence in the 1980s in New York. In the ensuing years, he has been an active performer, has produced albums for artists such as the World Saxophone Quartet and Bill Frisell, and has had compositions commissioned by Kronos Quartet, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and many others. The Snowghost Sessions, released near the end of 2018 on Vancouver’s Songlines record label, is the result of a weeklong residency undertaken by Horvitz, upright bassist Geoff Harper, and drummer Eric Eagle at SnowGhost Studios in Whitefish, Montana in the spring of 2015.

The Snowghost Sessions marks Horvitz’s first trio record in a conventional keys/bass/drums format, and the album starts with The Pauls, a pensive, eerie piece that sets the tone for the rest of the recording. Throughout Snowghost, Horvitz uses keyboards, live processing and triggered samples to expand the traditional sonic range of the acoustic piano trio. In some cases – such as the organ parts on Northampton – these electric additions work subtly, providing additional texture behind the grand piano. At other times, as on The Trees, the piano plays more of a supporting role to processed sounds; still further across the spectrum, on IMB, distorted, filtered keyboards rage over aggressive up-tempo swing. Through it all, Horvitz, Harper and Eagle are open and generous with one another, and Snowghost manages to be exploratory without ever meandering. Highly recommended.

07 Lawful CitizenInternal Combustion
Lawful Citizen
Independent (evanshay.com) 

Internal Combustion, released in November 2018, is the debut album from the Montreal-based band Lawful Citizen, a quartet composed of tenor saxophonist Evan Shay, guitarist Aime Duquet, electric bassist Antoine Pelegrin, and drummer Kyle Hutchins. Recorded at Montreal’s Mechanicland Studios, Internal Combustion is the follow-up to Lawful Citizen’s eponymous 2017 EP, and takes its inspiration from “the grit, brutality and rawness” contained in the “history of the internal combustion engine.” Needless to say, Internal Combustion is not a timid album. Which is not to suggest, of course, that it lacks in subtlety; over the course of the album’s nine songs, there are plenty of quiet, introspective moments, particularly at various points throughout the four-part Internal Combustion Suite. But, as is natural for a young group (they formed a few years ago at McGill), the overall mood, as the title suggests, is bold, dynamic and fiery.

Following The Day After – a lovely, short introductory piece, with Shay’s saxophone overdubbed to create a choral effect – Internal Combustion’s first ensemble song is February 2nd, a driving straight-eighths number that builds to a compelling climax in the saxophone solo. Shatter begins with a great drum groove from Hutchins, then morphs into one of the album’s heaviest tracks, with Duquet’s fuzzed-out guitar dominating the proceedings. The aforementioned four-part suite alone is worth the price of admission; nowhere on the album is Lawful Citizen’s penchant for extreme dynamic range deployed more surprisingly and more effectively.

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